Sources for Authentic Portrayal of Life with Disability

The Finishers (2013) is a French drama about a 17-year-old boy who challenges his father to jointly participate in an Ironman race.

By Natasha Abner

If you were paying attention to certain areas of news and social media, you might have noticed that one of the earliest summer blockbusters of 2016 brought with it a storm of controversy. Me Before You, based on Jojo Moyes’ novel of the same name, stars Sam Claflin as Will Traynor, a man who is paralyzed in adulthood after a motorcycle accident. The film drew criticism from across the disability community for its all too typical portrayal of life with disability as a pitiable existence not worth living (spoiler – Will pursues euthanasia in the end) and its casting of a non-disabled actor to play a disabled character, a practice that is (somewhat contentiously) referred to as cripface.

The portrayal of a community in literature and in the arts, including film, is a good metric for how much members of that community are valued as humans. Are they represented as multi-faceted characters with the expected range of relationships, pursuits, and interests? Or are they othered and treated as unidimensional individuals, interchangeable with any other member of the community? For example, in their book, Angels and Outcasts, Trent Batson and Eugene Bergman discuss how Deaf characters are frequently portrayed as simple-minded do-no-wrong characters living on the fringe of society. In the case of disability, this othering also frequently takes the form of a character who is little developed beyond his or her disability and often serves only as a vehicle to showcase the positive traits of a caretaker to whom he or she is beholden. In Me Before You, Will’s only respite from disability is provided by his able-bodied caretaker, Louisa, who is upbeat and selfless without limit.

Antidotes to such representations of disability are, fortunately, becoming increasingly more available. A&E’s Emmy Award winning reality TV show Born This Way follows a group of individuals with Down syndrome and reveals the profound commonalities between everyday life with and without a cognitive disability. Speechless, which aired its pilot episode on NBC September 21, 2016, is a new sitcom about family life with a child with a disability and the struggle to ensure that that child receives the accommodations necessary to fulfill his or her potential and achieve full inclusion. Unlike Me Before You, casting for Speechless purposely sought out a disabled actor, settling on Micah Fowler, who, like his television alter ego, has cerebral palsy. This necessary shift in the representation of disability is driven by “real life“ individuals with disabilities having a say in that representation due to their involvement as actors, directors, writers and so on, reflecting the disability rights movement’s advocacy for integration and self-representation.

For film, ReelAbilities serves as a venue for screening fictional and documentary movies that provide a nuanced and more realistic perspective on life with disability and, as such, “celebrate the diversity of our shared human experience.” Established in New York City in 2007, ReelAbilities had its first satellite festival outside of New York City in 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. In the years since, the festival has expanded to provide audiences across the country with access to films that are about individuals with disabilities, many of which are also created by individuals with disabilities. As with other film festivals, actors and creators are frequently in attendance to discuss their films with the audience. Moreover, in addition to film screenings, the festivals also frequently include live artistic and theatrical performances as well as informative presentation and panel discussion events. See below for a list of upcoming ReelAbilities film festivals and notes on programming. Future dates for 2017 are currently in the works in cities across the United States and ReelAbilities actively seeks sponsors as well as hosts for individual film screenings and additional festival sites.

Upcoming ReelAbilities Festivals

Pittsburgh, PA – October 20-November 2, 2016

Now in its fourth year, ReelAbilities Pittsburgh will open its 2016 festival with a screening of the documentary Becoming Bulletproof. Becoming Bulletproof follows a group of mixed ability adults from Zeno Mountain Farm as they create their yearly film camp movie – this year, a classic Hollywood western.


Montclair, NJ – October 30-November 5, 2016

Jointly hosted at Montclair State University and JCC MetroWest, ReelAbilities Montclair will feature a screening of No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie on November 3, 2016. The film, which features a Deaf director and many Deaf cast members, highlights the potential negative consequences when children are made to feel bad about their difference and are raised in environments without access (here, language) or adequate role models.


Houston, TX – February 19-23, 2017

The screening schedule for ReelAbilities Houston is still in development, though the 2016 festival featured accessible arts events as well as inclusive jazz and blues jam band sessions.


New York, NY – March 2-8, 2017

The flagship ReelAbilities festival will be returning to New York City in early 2017 with events across the boroughs and in the surrounding areas. The 2016 festival included a performance by the mixed-ability Heidi Latsky Dance company as well as a discussion with the artistic director, performer and choreographer, Heidi Latsky, whose work was also featured in Lincoln Center Out of Doors in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 2015.


Cincinnati, OH – March 9-12, 2017

Though not officially kicking off until March 2017, ReelAbilities Cincinnati is hosting the premier of Patrick’s Day at Esquire Theatre, a fictional film that addresses the complexities of disability (here, mental illness) and romance.


DSA member Natasha Abner teaches and researches sign language linguistics at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ. She is a board member and assistant director of Camp Looking Glass.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.


Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link:

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

June 27, 2017
· 77 rsvps

Join DSA activist Judith Gardiner to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 9 pm ET, 8 pm CT, 7 pm MT, 6 pm PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

July 06, 2017
· 17 rsvps

Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-Chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 6 PM MT; 5 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Joseph Schwartz,
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt,, 608-355-6568.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

July 09, 2017
· 2 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  9 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

Running for the National Political Committee

July 11, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join this call to hear a presentation and ask questions about the role, duties and time commitment of a member of DSA's National Political Committee. In the meantime, check out the information already on our website about the NPC.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 11 rsvps


Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.